Today’s movie is The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). This movie was directed by the great director John Ford. It is beautifully filmed in black and white and the story is exciting and well-paced. However, they told a version of US History has been taught in school and in the popular narrative for a century or more. When this movie was reviewed by the New York Times  at the time of its’ release, Frank S. Nugent accepted the tale as fact. This movie would have to work hard to be farther from the truth.
This movie is rated 7.3 by iMDB.com.
By modern standards, this movie is extremely racist. African-Americans are presented as simple children, superstitious, happy to follow their southern overlords, and not really caring for the Yankees.
Recent scholarship indicates that “Your name is mud (or Mudd)” predates Dr. Mudd’s conviction by at least four decades. However, I chose to stay with what I have always believed, that the saying is related to Dr. Mudd and not just about dirtying your name.
With that, let’s get on with the actors.
The wonderful cowboy actor and friend of John Ford, Harry Carey, had a relatively small role as the Commandant of Fort Jefferson Prison. Carey was covered in Episode 74 – Angel and the Badman (1947).
Warner Baxter played the role of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, the man convicted of helping John Wilkes Booth escape following the Lincoln assassination. Baxter was born in Ohio in 1889. He was somewhat of a showman at an early age, exhibiting a boy that would eat flies and worms for part of the profit. At the age of 9, his family moved to San Francisco. Following the 1906 earthquake, the family lived in a tent. By 1910, Baxter was working in vaudeville. He later worked on Broadway and eventually ended up in films.
He was a big star during the silent era and one of his first big roles was as the Cisco Kid in the movie In Old Arizona (1928). Director Raoul Walsh had to lose an eye to a jackrabbit for Baxter to get this role since Walsh had planned on playing the part himself. Baxter won the Best Actor Oscar for this role and became the first American actor to win in that category. Other movies include Penthouse (1933) with Myrna Loy, 42nd Street (1933), Broadway Bill (1934), and in what many consider his best role, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
Slowly his career slipped to B-movies. He suffered a nervous breakdown and began making Dr. Ordway movies in 1943, the first being Crime Doctor (1943). The easy shooting schedule helped with his medical condition.
He was lobotomized because of his arthritis pain. OMG! Following the surgery, he came down with pneumonia and died in 1951.
Gloria Stuart played Mrs. Peggy Mudd, the wife of Dr. Mudd. Stuart was born in 1910 in California. She acted in high school and college before moving to Carmel where she continued to act. One of her plays was moved to the Pasadena Playhouse in 1932 and she was spotted by scouts from Paramount and Universal.
She played several roles for director James Whale including The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933). Not really happy with the roles she was getting and follow the birth of her daughter, Stuart left film for stage work.
In the 1940s she opened an art furniture store. She continued this and other art projects until her husband fell ill in the late 1970s, she began working in television. She had too memorable roles during this time. At least the first one is memorable to me when she danced with Peter O’Toole in the very funny My Favorite Year (1982). The next is when she played Old Rose in Titanic (1997). She received an Oscar nomination for the latter. Stuart died at the age of 100 in 2010.
Arthur Byron played Peggy Mudd’s father and Dr. Mudd’s father-in-law, Mr. Erickson. The entire role was played as a crazy old Confederate veteran. Byron was born in 1872 in New York. Byron began acting on stage at 17 in his father’s theater. He continued this work for 50 years. He is known for The Mummy (1932), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932). He died in 1943.
O.P. Heggie played the Union Dr. MacIntyre at Fort Jefferson. Heggie was born in Australia in 1877. Heggie was educated and became a bank clerk. He began acting in Australia and New Zealand. |He then moved to Britain and finally to the US in 1901. He made it to Broadway by 1907 and started in film at MGM in 1928. In films, he is known for Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Midnight (1934), and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Of these films, he is beloved as the blind hermit that befriended and feeds the monster in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). He died in 1936.
Francis McDonald played the role of assassin John Wilkes Booth. McDonald was born in 1891 in Kentucky. McDonald is not a well-known name in films, but this actor has a familiar face from its’ numerous appearances in film and television. He was active from the silent era through the Golden Age of Television amassing almost 350 roles.
He began in stage work but switched to film in 1913. Eventually, he became a major character actor is and is known for Battling Butler (1926), Morocco (1930), The Plainsman (1936), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Zorro’s Black Whip (1944), and The Ten Commandments (1956). In the 1950s he became a mainstay on television, especially in westerns. He died in 1968.
Ernest Whitman played African American Buck Milford. Whitman was born in 1893 in Arkansas. Whitman is best known for Road to Zanzibar (1941), Cabin in the Sky (1943), King for a Day (1934), and Stormy Weather (1943). He died in 1954.
Etta McDaniel played Aunt Rosabelle Milford, wife to Buck and mother of 12 children. McDaniel was born in Kansas in 1890. McDaniel is best known for The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), The Great Man’s Lady (1942), and Son of Dracula (1943). She died in 1946.
On April 9th, 1865 the Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse and the four years long Civil War was almost over. President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.) comes out on a White House balcony and asks the military band to play “Dixie.”
On April 14th, 1865, President Lincoln goes to Ford’s Theater to watch the play “Our American Cousins.” During the play, John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald) sneaks into the president’ box and shoots him in the back of his head. After the assassination, Booth jumps to the stage. However, he gets his spur caught on the flag draping the President’s Box and lands poorly, breaking his leg. He shouts “Sic Semper tyrannies” thus always to tyrants and flees the stage.
As the President dies, Booth and his companion David Herold (Paul Fix) flee south into the Dismal Swamp. In southern Maryland, they wake a slave family, although slavery was abolished in Maryland at this time, and get directions to Dr. Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter). In this movie, he is shown as a simple country doctor that wasn’t too well off. In fact, Mudd was a major slave owner and wealthy southern sympathized until the war changed his fortune. His home may have been a stop on the Confederate spy route as well.
With the knock on the door, Mrs. Peggy Mudd (Gloria Stuart) comes downstairs. The two fugitives enter the house and the doctor treats Booth but has to cut away his boot. Mudd tries to get the man to rest. In this movie, Mudd talks about how President Lincoln is the only friend the south has and what a good guy he is. Not likely!
Booth tries to scrape his name out of his boot. Booth gives $50 to Mudd and they leave into the night. The bell rings again and it is child summoning the doctor to the birth of ‘Buck’ Milford
(Ernest Whitman) and Aunt Rosabelle Milford (Etta McDaniel) 12th child. They are the slaves that pointed Booth to Dr. Mudd’s house.
In the morning, Union cavalry arrives and arrest the man that had his buggy stolen and head to Mudd’s house. At breakfast, Mr. Erickson (Arthur Byron) Mudd’s father in law, is explaining in an excited voice how it was really an issue of states’ rights, Righttttt, to Mudd’s daughter Martha Mudd (Joyce Kay), while they are being served by an African American woman. Mr. Erickson is a crazy old poop.
The cavalry reaches Mudd’s house and begins searching the house. Out back Martha finds the discarded boot of Booth. When a solider discovers the boot, he takes the boot to his officers as Mr. Erickson rages crazy about killing northern politicians.
As Mudd, heads back to his house, a carpet bagger is inciting the field hands. Mudd has the black men run him off. Mudd then sends Buck back to his cabin to see his new son.
When Dr. Mudd gets to the house, the soldiers are waiting to arrest him. Mudd admits that he has seen John Wilkes Booth on the stage several times. They arrest Mudd on the spot.
Later the text tells the Booth was killed and that eight people are on trial including people that had tried or planned to kill other elected officials. In this movie, there is no possibility that Mudd was guilty. Historically, Mudd had met with Booth several times in Washington and at his farm. He also failed to report the setting of Booth’s leg even after he found out the President was killed.
As the trial goes on, Mudd’s family tries to see him but is kept away. The military trial doesn’t use the regular rules of evidence and standards of conviction. Dr. Mudd gives an impassioned plea to the court. He is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in the fort at Dry Tortuga, about 90-miles west of Key West. Mudd is allowed to see his family before he is shipped to the prison. Dry Tortugas is a beautiful place for a week or so if you have air conditioning.
Mudd and other military prisoners were sent to the island prison. The Commandant of Fort Jefferson prison (Harry Carey) watches Mudd walk through the entrance. Most of the prison guards are African-Americans. They are logged in by Sgt. Rankin (John Carradine) and he is a mean SOB. When he makes it to Dr. Mudd, he looks up for the first time and shines with glee at having this prisoner under his thumb. Sgt. Rankin knocks Mudd to the ground and says that he will regret only getting a life sentence. Sgt. Rankin shows the prisoners that the moat is full of sharks that they sometimes feed. He throws some meat in and it is descended on by sharks, that may or may not have been played by dolphins.
Mudd is being taken to his cell and he sees Buck wearing a Union Army uniform. He speaks to Buck who just replies ‘move on white man.’ Mudd is taken to the infirmary where a doctor is working on mosquito larva and is happy to meet another doctor until he finds out that this doctor is Mudd.
Later Buck comes by Mudd’s cell and calls him Master Sam. He says he has been on the island for months, having been sent down by Mrs. Mudd to help out the doctor. Buck gives Mudd soap to wear as protection against the mosquitos.
Mrs. Mudd and her crazy old father work the politicians in Washington trying to get Mudd released. The old man wearing his Confederate uniform probably doesn’t help. Their plan is to serve a writ of habeas corpus, ‘deliver the body,’ in a civil jurisdiction. This plan involves breaking Dr. Mudd out of prison and getting him to the mainland. The crazy old father in law searches for a sword he can sell, while ‘Dixie’ plays, and he mumbles in authentic frontier gibberish.
One-night Buck brings a letter to Master Sam. The letter tells of the boat coming for him with two flashing light will wait outside the prison for Mudd. Buck says he will make arrangements to be the bridge guard and will leave with Mudd. When Buck crosses the prison yard, Sgt. Rankin is watching him.
Sgt. Rankin sees Mudd looking at the ships. Sgt. Rankin searches the cell but the key in a bar of soap.
When the guard detail reports to Sgt. Rankin, he calls Buck out and almost breaks his story. Carradine looks like the devil. Sgt. Rankin goes to Mudd’s cell and finds it unlocked. Mudd is moving through the casemates with a sheet rope for climbing. Sgt. Rankin finds out the Buck volunteered for bridge guard and he orders him arrested.
Sgt. Rankin wants Mudd brought back dead, not alive. He hides above the Sally port opening. Mudd tries to make it back to his cell but it is guarded. He scales the wall of the fort and lowers himself towards the moat on his rope.
Mudd calls for Buck and the guard that replaced him fires at him. Sgt. Rankin fires and knocks Mudd off the wall.
To Sgt. Rankin’s chagrin the rifle fire drives the sharks away and Mudd makes it to sea. The commandant orders Sgt. Rankin to take boats after Mudd and bring him back alive. Mudd makes it to the ship where his crazy father-in-law and his wife are waiting.
Just then the Union boats arrive and recapture Mudd. Sgt. Rankin calls him Judas and has murder in his eyes, but he doesn’t. Back at the prison, they lock Mudd in an underground pit where Buck is already a prisoner.
Mrs. Mudd goes back to her daughter and maid and lets her know that her crazy Confederate grandfather is dead.
Buck and Mudd are suffering and haven’t heard any bugle calls or received any food.
The Commandant is signaling a ship to bring in the supplies because he has 1,000 cases of Yellow Fever in the prison. The ship captain will not deliver the supplies because of the disease. The single fort doctor is treating the cases as best he can. The doctor has no cure. It is pretty clear that the doctor has caught the disease. The black troops that are not sick refuse to help. Of course, this is done in the most racist way possible.
A corporal (Jack Pennick) reminds the Commandant that Mudd is a doctor. They head off to get Mudd. The Commandant asks for Mudd’s help. Mudd and the Commandant take Buck topside. The Commandant gives complete control over to Mudd.
The men that are not sick, African Americans, are blockaded in the mess hall. They fire at Mudd when he comes to talk to them. He tells them that they will be tried for mutiny and hanged. In some real racist shit, they believe him because he is a real southern man. He says he needs colored boys to help and anyone that helps he will save from hanging. One of the men says Mudd seems like a nice man.
The African Americans start working just as a big storm blows in. One of the Yellow Fever victims is Sgt. Rankin and he tells Mudd to get away and calls him Judas again. Buck gets well and misses home. He keeps calling Mudd master Sam.
After 5 days Mudd is worn out and he gets angry about the supply boat standing offshore. Mudd can’t sleep because he has Yellow Fever and sees the boat riding in the storm. He wakes the orderly. They go to the middle tier where a gun crew is sleeping. They signal the ship to come in but they refuse. Mudd says he will fire on the ship if they don’t put in.
The crew fires one round and the ship turns to sea. Mudd orders the crew to fire on the ship and when they refuse, he calls one of them a nigra. They fire and hit the mast. The ship turns in to the fort.
With the medicine and doctors from the ship, everything turns out all right. Mudd survives. The Commandant sends a request for a pardon of Mudd. The now well, Sgt. Rankin steps up to be the first to sign the pardon request. They shake hands and war wounds are healed.
Back in Maryland, Mrs. Mudd and Martha are waiting. Mudd looks healthy and Buck in his Union uniform heads to his home still calling Mudd master Sam. Rosabelle and Sam’s 12 children are waiting in the road for him.
Buck and Mrs. Mudd would be in a federal prison for their part in the escape attempt. The Commandant would also be in prison for turning his command over to a prisoner. So, it didn’t really happen that way.
Mudd did attempt to escape by stowing away on a ship in 1865. He was caught and spent three months in a dark cell called the dungeon. He was not allowed to work in the hospital until a Yellow Fever outbreak in 1867. Mudd was given easier work and eventually pardoned in 1869 based on the letter touting his work saving lives and the work of his legal team with President Andrew Johnson’s administration. Mudd died in 1883 at the age of 49.
World-Famous Short Summary – The myth of the lost cause is validated
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Beware the moors